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Snake River winding toward several peaks of the Teton Range in Wyoming. 1941.Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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Trees heavy with ice and snow in Yosemite, California. 1933.
Ansel Adams/National Park Service/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
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The Grand Canyon in 1941.Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. 1942.Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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A settlement at the base of a cliff at the Canyon de Chelly National Monument, an area that has been inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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Grand Canyon National Park, photographed in 1941.Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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A lone cactus in Saguaro National Monument, Arizona. 1941. Ansel Adams/Archive Photos/Getty Images
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In addition to nature scenes, Ansel Adams' photographs also featured people, like these three Native Americans in headdresses. San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico, 1942.
Ansel Adams/National Park Service/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
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A young Navajo girl in Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. 1941.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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A Navajo woman and her baby. Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, 1941. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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Streets and homes in Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico. 1941. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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Mountain peaks at Grand Teton National Park. 1941.Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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Heaven's Peak in Glacier National Park, Montana. 1941. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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This Ansel Adams photograph captures the brutal beauty of Death Valley National Park in California. 1941.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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Grand Canyon National Park viewed from Yava Point. 1941.Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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Snow-covered mountains in Glacier National Park. 1941.Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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Clouds obscure the peaks of Glacier National Park in this Ansel Adams photograph from 1941.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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Ansel Adams' photos of the Hoover Dam make the man-made construction seem like part of the landscape.Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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Death Valley National Park, as captured by Ansel Adams in 1941.Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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Death Valley. 1941.Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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Fin Dome, Kings River Canyon, California. 1936.Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. 1942. Ansel Adams/National Park Service/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
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A flock of sheep in Owens Valley, California. 1941.Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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In addition to his nature shots, Ansel Adams was also invited to photograph the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California between 1943 and 1944 by the camp director. Library of Congress
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A group of boys play practice football at the Manzanar War Relocation Center, with the Sierra Nevadas in the distance. Library of Congress
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Yaeko Nakamura and her two daughters, Joyce Yuki and Louise Tami. Though they're smiling in the photo, Joyce later recalled: "Like Nazi Germany, we Japanese Americans were put into concentration camps. We were constantly under threat if we went near the barbed wire fences."Library of Congress
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Japanese-American babies at the Manzanar orphanage.Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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U.S. Naval Cadet Nurse, Kay Fukuda. 1943. Library of Congress
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A young girl holds a volleyball as the sky stretches out behind her.Library of Congress
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Pictures and mementos that Ansel Adams photographed at the Yonemitsu home. Despite the internment of their friends and family, Japanese Americans were eventually permitted to serve in World War II in segregated units.Library of Congress
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Roy Takeno, the editor of the Manzanar Free Press, reads the paper with others at Manzanar. Library of Congress
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People at Manzanar gather to watch a band perform.Library of Congress
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Two people sit outside Manzanar's YMCA.Library of Congress
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A street in Manzanar, under the gaze of the Sierra Nevada mountains.Library of Congress
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Tom Kobayashi, one of the 110,000 Japanese Americans interned at camps during World War II.Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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Following his internment, Kobayashi later served in the U.S. Army and made a name for himself as a sound engineer in charge of George Lucas' Skywalker Sound post-production facilities.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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A town hall meeting at Manzanar Relocation Center, with a large American flag in the background.Library of Congress
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Students in biology class at Manzanar.Library of Congress
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The landscape at Manzanar. 1943.Buyenlarge/Getty Images
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Rac Lake at Kings Canyon National Park, California. 1936. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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McDonald Lake in Glacier National Park. Montana, 1941. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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Another shot of McDonald Lake.Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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North Rim at Grand Canyon National Park. 1941.Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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Mount Brewer, Kings River Canyon, California. 1936. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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Mount Winchell, Kings River Canyon, California. 1936. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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North Dome, Kings River Canyon, California. 1936. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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The geyser Old Faithful during an eruption at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. 1942. Ansel Adams/National Park Service/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
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Steam rises from the mountains at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. 1942. Ansel Adams/National Park Service/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
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Glacier National Park in Montana. 1941. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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Grand Canyon National Park. 1941. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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Glacier National Park. 1941.Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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A mountain peak at Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana. 1942.Ansel Adams/National Park Service/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
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One of Ansel Adams' most famous photographs, "Moonrise Over Hernandez."Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images
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Zion National Park, Utah. 1941. Ansel Adams/National Park Service/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
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A portrait of Jimmy Carter by Ansel Adams. The two men shared an admiration for nature. National Portrait Gallery
55 Astonishing Ansel Adams Photographs That Depict Nature, Life, And Social Justice In America
For Ansel Adams, simplicity was everything. He applied that mindset to his photographs, which famously showed stunning natural vistas untouched by civilization. "A picture," he said, "is only a collection of brightness. There is nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept."
And Adams applied that mindset to his life, too. Alongside his photographs of American beauty, like Yellowstone and Glacier National Park, Adams also documented life at a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. These photos, like his nature shots, showed a clear and simple truth.
In the gallery above, look through 55 of Ansel Adams' most stunning photographs, from the cruel beauty of Death Valley and the magnificence of the Grand Canyon to the daily life of people at the Manzanar War Relocation Center. And below, learn how the famous photographer established his iconic style.
The Boy With The Crooked Nose
Born on Feb. 20, 1902, in San Francisco, California, Ansel Adams grew up in a once-prosperous family that had made its bygone fortune in timber. Shy, hyperactive, and with a crooked nose from taking a fall during the 1906 earthquake, Adams didn't fit in with others his age.
Instead, he drifted toward art and nature. As The Ansel Adams Gallery explains, Adams' first love was playing the piano. His second was the Yosemite Sierra, which Adams later said "colored and modulated [his life] by the great earth gesture." It was at Yosemite that Adams took his first photographs with a Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie at the age of 14.
Ansel Adams/Public Domain"Monolith, the Face of Half Dome" is one of Adams' most famous photographs. Taken in 1927 at the beginning of his career, the brutally beautiful image captures a part of Yosemite that Adams had visited since boyhood.
There, amid the stunning peaks, Adams developed his love for photography, deepened his admiration for nature, and even met his wife. He joined the Sierra Club and started taking photos of club outings which, according to The Ansel Adams Gallery, gave him the idea that photography could be more than just a passion — it could be a profession.
In 1927, Adams got his first big break when he crossed paths with Albert M. Bender, an insurance magnate who became Adams' patron. The New York Times reports that Bender took Adams under his wing and introduced the budding photographer to artist friends like Georgia O'Keeffe.
Before long, Adams began to produce incredible images of American natural scenes. But not all of Ansel Adams' photographs would be of landscapes.
The Clarity Of Ansel Adams' Photography
Ansel Adams' photographs are stunning because of their simplicity — just as Adams wanted. He was a "straight photographer" in that he wielded the power of the camera and didn't tinker much with the end product.
As a result, Ansel Adams produced scores of photos that emphasize the bare, harsh, and always breathtaking beauty of the American West. His images of sites like Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Glacier National Park present these stunning natural sites as majestic and almost holy.
But Adams' clarity wasn't reserved for photography. He also had a moral clarity, which he demonstrated in his photographs of the Manzanar War Relocation Center, a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II.
His photos captured the resilience of the people interned at Manzanar, many of whom were American citizens. They played football, published a newspaper, attended town hall meetings, and hung up the American flag.
Ansel Adams/Library of CongressPeople interned at the Manzanar War Relocation Camp, many of whom were American citizens born in the United States, play a game of baseball.
For decades, the photos taken at Manzanar pleased no one. Adams' detractors called him a "Jap lover" and forced the early closure of an exhibition of the photos at the Museum of Modern Art. Meanwhile, some came to see Adams' internment camp images as government propaganda, since they showed the people at the camp as happy and well-adjusted.
But Adams himself said otherwise. Writing to the Library of Congress 20 years later, he noted: "The purpose of my work was to show how these people, suffering under a great injustice, and loss of property, businesses and professions, had overcome the sense of defeat and despair by building for themselves a vital community in an arid (but magnificent) environment."
Today, these Ansel Adams photographs clearly depict Adams' message — just as much as his photos of Yellowstone or Zion capture his love of nature.
Ansel Adams' Legacy Today
By the time Ansel Adams died in 1984 at the age of 82, he'd established himself as one of the best-known photographers in the United States. According to The New York Times, his work had been featured in more than 35 books and portfolios, as well as over 100 exhibitions. In 1989, he'd even been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.
In addition to his photographic style, Adams is also remembered for his devotion to nature. Ansel Adams' photographs depict beautiful natural scenes, but they also capture his admiration and love for sites like Yosemite.
Barbara Alper/Getty ImagesAnsel Adams in 1983, the year before he died.
Similarly, Adams' compassion for people interned at Manzanar also appears in his photos of the internment camp. By capturing simple scenes of people playing games, tending shop, or hugging their children, he made the subtle but powerful point that the camps were an injustice.
As Adams said: "There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer." He poured himself into every shot.
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.